The North Water

The North WaterFinally! Finally! A book on this year’s Booker longlist that I’m excited about. I liked Work Like Any Other just fine, but none of the others I’ve read did much for me. I’m hoping this is a turnaround point.

I have a weakness for cold-weather disasters, and I’m a fan of Patrick O’Brian, and, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been craving plot, so Ian McGuire’s novel about a 19th-century whaling expedition gone wrong was just right. I groaned and gasped all the way through this book.

The main character of The North Water is a surgeon named Patrick Sumner. He has some dark secrets from his time with the army in Delhi, and serving on the Volunteer‘s journey to the Arctic is a chance to escape his memories and earn a little money. But the journey is ill-fated from the start, thanks to an insurance scheme cooked up by the ship’s owner and the presence of the monstrous Henry Drax.

If you’re looking for a nautical adventure along the lines of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, you’re better off looking elsewhere. McGuire offers none of O’Brian’s light touch. All of the many misfortunes of the Volunteer are described in excruciating detail. No drop of blood or bodily fluid is left unmentioned. This type of explicitness sometimes annoys me in proto-Victorian novels, but it works here. This is a brutal world, and not just in comparison to our own. It’s brutal for its time.

As much as I enjoyed this, I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s heavy on plot, well-paced, and well-written. The focus is on the action, and the action is focused on survival. There are few moments of introspection, although I was struck by a moment late in the book when the men of the Volunteer, having come face-to-face with an unanticipated act of abominable evil, are described as “unable to parse the world implied by such events.” That’s a remarkably good description of what facing down evil can feel like. How can one parse such a world?

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

pursuit of aliceThis is the story of an unbalanced romance. It is the story of a fudge salesman (and maybe a con man — we’re not sure) doggedly pursuing a surgeon, for no reason she (or we, at first) can see. When Ray Russo meets Alice Thrift, she is an isolated intern with no social life:

How had I gotten so appallingly ineffective with actual people? I thought I had a nice way about me — I was particularly adept at delivering good-news bulletins to relatives in the waiting room, but even that drew criticism. Once in a while, a next of kin complained that the frown on my face as I walked into the lounge scared him or her to death. But wasn’t it mere concentration? It was never enough — my excellent knowledge of anatomy, my openings and closings, my long hours. What people want, I swear, is a doctor with the disposition of a Montessori teacher.

Alice — no Montessori teacher she — has a habit of blurting out uncomfortable truths and preferring a night’s sleep or an evening’s study to any socializing that might be going on. Her roommate, Leo Frawley, the world’s most popular pediatric nurse, takes Alice under his wing. This doesn’t mean he wants to change her, he just reaches out to her as a friend, and after a while, their mutual incomprehension wears off in some extremely charming ways.

Ray, a recent widower, continues his heavy courtship of Alice in every imaginable way: eeling his way into dates, insisting on driving her to her grandmother’s funeral (and bringing four pounds of fudge for the reception), macking his way up to her new apartment, fainting in the bath, and requiring medical attention. Alice is bewildered by this plan of attack, and seesaws between being flattered and annoyed. When she makes friends with another intern, the bold and sarcastic Sylvie, she has another perspective — but also more distractions, since Sylvie’s love life is on High Farce Mode. And in the mean time, Leo’s got a new girlfriend — a baby-hungry midwife who doesn’t seem to like Alice at all. Where is the happily ever after going to come from?

This is the second novel I’ve read by Elinor Lipman, and it’s just delightful: light, light, light as a meringue, light as raspberry mousse. There’s no heartbreak here, nothing high-stakes. When someone is acting like a jerk, everyone has enough common sense to see that person acting like a jerk. People are capable of change. The prose is witty and sly and funny on every page, without being manic. This author is just so enjoyable, and well worth the couple of hours it takes to read one of her novels.

Posted in Fiction | 9 Comments

The Home and the World

home and the worldThis 1916 novel, originally written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore, is a terrific example of what happens when individual lives and the life of a nation meet. Sometimes books like this can be lumpen allegories, where the author keeps hitting you over the head with a bottle of Think Like Me Sauce. In The Home and the World, however, we have three people tangled together in ideas and ideology, love and desire, tradition and modernity, arrogance and need, idealism and realism, freedom and tyranny. There is Nikhil, the zamindar who adores his wife and wants her greater freedom and engagement with the world. There is Bimala, the wife who almost worships her husband and seems content with her traditional role — until she meets Sandip, the greedy, manipulative nationalist who flatters her by making her into his muse. These characters leap off the page, full of anguish or happiness or wisdom. At the same time, we have India at the beginning of the 20th century. The National Independence Movement is in full swing, and Swadeshi (a movement that tried to rid India of foreign goods and influence) is rocking the local economy with its fervor. When these people clash with the huge swell of events, who can predict what will happen?

As the book opens, Bimala is deeply in love with Nikhil. She “takes the dust of his feet” while he sleeps, wanting to keep her deep reverence to herself, because a woman “must worship in order to love.” Nikhil, however, doesn’t want her worship (or at least he thinks he doesn’t.) His ideal is a woman who can step out of the women’s quarters and engage with the outside world, a woman who is free even from freely-chosen governance. When Bimala goes to a political event to please Nikhil, she hears Sandip speak and feels her world shaken. She is immediately convinced of the vital importance of Swadeshi, and — more vitally — of her own centrality to the movement, as the muse and goddess of Bengal, the embodiment of Bengali womanhood. She begins changing into a freer and more modern woman, flattered and encouraged at every step by the virile and smooth-spoken Sandip. Nikhil must struggle with his feelings: in theory, he wants her (and everyone) to be perfectly free, but does he want this at the cost of his marriage?

So Bimala’s choice isn’t just between two men. It’s between two ways of life: being completely free and being governed — a life in which power goes to the person who can snatch it. Sandip sees this power-hungry life as the natural way of things, and envisions himself as the top of the heap and Bimala as the goddess who will motivate him. Nikhil’s rational, gentle way of helping people at his own expense will never make progress — or so he thinks.

This storyline, full of drama and emotion, both plays itself out against and reflects the different ideas about nationalism happening at the moment in India. Nikhil represents a humanistic freedom, that puts people above nation, caste, gender, and race. He wants the good of individuals more than a nominal freedom that might hurt more than it would help. Sandip, on the other hand, is brash, seeking power for its own sake, putting on the mask of nationalism so he can gain the upper hand over individuals and country alike. Bimala, at first completely taken in by Sandip’s rhetoric and carried away by the Swadeshi movement, later begins to see through his tactics. The goddess of Bengal must also dwell in the home, or the home means nothing. This is brought out in particular in the question of Bimala’s jewelry: traditionally, an Indian woman’s jewelry is extremely sentimental, the way I might feel about my engagement or wedding ring. Sandip asks her to sell it to get money for “the cause,” a deeply insensitive and unchivalric gesture meant to cement his power over her. She does it — but in fact it breaks his power, because she sees through his petty, grasping effort to break her home.

The three main characters take turns writing their stories (or, more accurately, “autobiographies”) as the story unfolds. This means that we sometimes see the same event from two or even three different perspectives as the story gains momentum. In this way, the book makes us consider: what is truth? There aren’t any staged answers here; the reader has to come to her own conclusions. The prose — as translated from Bengali — is elaborate and a bit formal, but I didn’t find it stilted or hard to read. It struck me as being of its time, and indeed quite beautiful. I wish I could read Bengali.

I thought this book was fascinating and compelling, and still relevant today with the fanatic nationalism that affects so many countries, including my own. I hope you read it if you haven’t already. If you have — what did you think?

 

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 5 Comments

The Sellout

The SelloutSatire is hard. It’s hard to write and hard to read. And I’ll admit straight off that I’m not good at reading it. If the point of the jokes are too obvious, I get annoyed. If it’s too subtle, I miss it. And if there’s not much beyond jokes, I get frustrated and bored. So I’m not the ideal reader for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I tried to read it earlier this year and got bored with it and didn’t finish. (And, as I’ve mentioned before, the library copy I read was mildewed and gave me a headache.) But, in the interests of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, I gave it another try. I finished this time, so that’s a plus, but I’m still not this book’s ideal reader.

The book is chock-a-block with gags and one-liners, usually involving race. It’s clear from the start that we’re not meant to take the jokes seriously, as the main character Bonbon declares:

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snick into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.

Bonbon Me has been summoned to the Supreme Court because he has been found in violation of the Constitution. His crime? Owning a slave and promoting segregation. It’s not as simple as all that, of course. The slave, a man named Hominy and the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, asked to be enslaved. And Bonbon’s efforts at segregation brought improvements to the black and brown citizens of his neighborhood.

As I’ve already noted, I’m not the best audience for satire. But, as I read this, I struggle to understand who is. It’s meant, I think, to be confronting, but until the last few chapters, I found it too over-the-top to ever actually feel confronted. Toward the end, some complexity regarding what the best answers are for America’s race problems is introduced, and I appreciated that. There’s also some interesting commentary around stereotypes and how people find comfort in them, including those being stereotyped.

In the end, I felt like this book was too interested in being outrageous to ever win me over. The characters and plot are vehicles for transgressive jokes and commentary. They never turn into living, breathing people experiencing a high-stakes situation. It’s just very much not my kind of book.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 15 Comments

The Brutal Telling

brutal tellingThis is the fifth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series of crime novels, most of which take place in the small, secluded Quebecois village of Three Pines. I read the fourth novel, A Rule Against Murder, just a few months ago, and I wasn’t totally happy with it — something, I thought, to do with its taking place outside of the village, and without the cast of familiar characters Penny has taken so much trouble to develop. Fortunately, this novel is right back on track. Not only does it take place back in the beloved village, it is right back in the heart of the villagers themselves — the sometimes unnerving, self-deluded, terrified TELL-TALE HEART of the villagers.

(Heh.)

The book opens with a shock: the body of an elderly man has been found at Olivier’s Bistro, murdered but not murdered on the premises. Who is he? Who murdered him? Who moved the body, and from where? The police (headed up by Gamache, of course) dive into their usual methods, tracing not just forensic evidence but emotional evidence. Gamache’s theory is that murder is sort of like the bursting of a psychic boil: somewhere, somehow, a nasty emotion has been left to fester, and this is the way it has ultimately manifested itself. Suspicion flits from one place to another: is it one of the people of the village (perhaps Olivier himself)? Is it the newcomers, Marc and Dominique Gilbert, whose plans for an elaborate retreat and spa are disrupting Three Pines? Is it Roar Parras, a longtime Czech resident whose past is shrouded in mystery? Or is it some evil that the victim brought upon himself? When the police discover a cabin in the woods apparently belonging to the dead man, Gamache and his team are shocked to discover the remote building is full of priceless antiquities, from first edition books to European treasures thought to have disappeared during WWII to startling carvings made by the dead man himself. The harsh light that this trove sheds on the murder also casts an unpleasant light on some important people in Three Pines — people we’ve gotten to know well over several books. The past catches up with the present here, and chaos comes with it.

I know that some of the appeal of this series to some readers is that Three Pines is so cozy, full of places and people where you’d like to spend time, maybe retire. Those readers may not have enjoyed this book as much, feeling that Penny had turned on her characters. But I enjoyed this entry in the series maybe most of all so far. The series can be a little too cozy for me at times, and The Brutal Telling reassured me that Three Pines isn’t a Stepford village. Penny can have a tendency to throw around references to art and poetry without making any real connections, but this book was more solid, and justified its elaborate construction. While it still didn’t have the deep sense of menace or consequence that, say, a Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith novel will give you, I appreciated what it did have: a genuine struggle with motivation, an exploration of lies and secrets, and some very serious foreshadowing for the next book — to which I’m very much looking forward.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 4 Comments

How to be both

how to be bothThis lovely, dual-narrative novel by Ali Smith twines around itself like a double helix (and, in case you didn’t notice it, part of the novel takes place in Cambridge, England, where “DNA history had been made.”) In the first part of the book, a talkative 15th-century ghost named Francescho is dragged through space and time (“Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook if a fish could be fished through a 6-foot wall made of bricks”) to observe a grieving adolescent in our world, a kind of purgatorium Francescho both does and doesn’t understand. (Both.)

An ambitious painter, Francescho was hired, centuries ago, to decorate the Schifanoia palace: meant to banish boredom. The dazzling narrative flickers through flashbacks and experiences that would banish anyone’s boredom: a visit to prostitutes in which the outcome is not what anyone expected; run-ins with a tight-fisted patron over payment; a sharp observant eye on the world (a blackbird’s beak is a “good Naples yellow.”) Smith has put a tight twist in the helix on all these proceedings, however: it’s not until dozens of pages in that we discover that the garrulous painter is a woman disguised as a man, her chest tightly bound with linen, and trained by her bricklayer father to succeed in a man’s world. (How to be both.) We see Francescho observe our world, too: the adolescent holds up a “holy votive tablet” that we understand to be an iPad, on which she watches “frieze after frieze of carnal pleasure-house love enacted before our eyes.” Hmmm. We know what that is, too. Being both inside and outside is just another example of Smith’s light-handed play.

The second half of the narrative pulls us, gasping, into the year 2013. Here the adolescent George has recently lost her mother, at 50, to a senseless accident: an allergic reaction to a common antibiotic. Her mother was an influential economist with leftist views. She also designed “subverts” (a play on “adverts”) that popped up on the Internet: images that combined art and politics and made you think about both. George is trying to cope with her grief, partly through her fierce interest in an artist her mother was deeply drawn to before her death. Guess who? Francesco del Cossa, a painter whose biography we know little about, who painted the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia. Surprise!

I think you’d have to read this book twice, or anyway one and a half times, to get all the references that fly back and forth and back again between the two halves of this book. There are walls and mythic beasts and hands and eyes growing from flower stems, to name just a few. Smith explores how to be both: not just both male and female, but how to laugh while grieving, how to know who you are and escape that identity, how the past breathes through the present and is still to some extent alive. The book feels light, and the prose is crisp and often witty, but it’s — as Francescho says about her art — “good at the real and the true and the beautiful.”

Posted in Fiction | 9 Comments

Eileen

EileenI first attempted to read this novel by Ottessa Moshfegh several months ago and gave up in boredom after about 60 pages. I had been led to expect a thriller, something in the vein of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. Although I can see where that idea came from, most of Eileen is a straightforward character study of a not very pleasant person. The story I expected doesn’t turn up until the last few chapters.

When this turned up on the Man Booker longlist, I knew I needed to give it another try so I could better participate in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury deliberations. I’m happy to say that going into it expecting a slow-moving character study helped me this time, and I liked it a lot more. It’s still not a favorite, though, and I’d not be sorry to see better books on the shortlist. (This is a theme for my Booker reading this year.)

Now in her 70s, Eileen narrates a pivotal week from her early 20s, the week she calls “my last days as that angry little Eileen.” Angry little Eileen lived alone with her alcoholic father, worked in a prison for juvenile boys, had no friends to speak of, and obsessed over one of the prison guards, going so far as to park at his house and watch his movements. Her home is unkempt and lonely, as is she. She takes poor care of herself, rarely eating and relying on laxatives to keep her bowels moving. (There’s a lot of talk about bowels and other bodily functions.)

Eileen is not at all likable, nor is she deliciously unlikable like the narrator of A Kind of IntimacyShe’s dull and more than a little bit gross. In a way, her frankness is refreshing, but I never found it enjoyable. It was endurable, and I was curious as to how she would break away. The fact that it’s clear she did was what kept me reading.

I don’t want to dwell much on the event that snaps her out of her situation, lest I spoil the shocks, but I’ll say that I did find the final chapters gripping. I also appreciated the way the most overtly dramatic story is put in the background as Eileen’s story of getting out is foregrounded. The big cataclysm is important in the novel because of the effect it has on Eileen, how it teaches her that she is capable of something and pushes her to get past the boundaries she’s set for herself. The ending is weirdly liberating, despite being dark, dark, dark.

Even though this was better the second time around (by which I mean it was finishable), I wonder if it would have been better as a short story. It’s possible that the many pages of characterization were necessary for the final chapters to achieve their impact. Seeing Eileen shed an identity we’d barely gotten to know might not mean much. But the development gets tedious, and it’s not hard to see what sort of person Eileen is from the first couple of chapters. A shorter version that still found a way to demonstrate what a rut she was in would probably have kept me reading the first time.

Posted in Fiction | 16 Comments

Hystopia

HystopiaSet in an alternate version of the 1960s, this novel by David Means follows a trio of Vietnam veterans who’ve undergone a procedure called enfolding that eliminates their memories of past trauma. It’s not a fool-proof procedure, however. Drugs, a cold bath, or really good sex can bring memories back, and the enfolded will often feel driven to remember what they’re forgotten.

This idea of the role of memory in trauma is one of the more compelling aspects of this complex book. Is forgetting preferable to remembering? Or is there value in remembering? Is there a reason the mind seeks those memories? There’s no clear answer here. Some of the enfolded are able to function. Singleton has a job working for the Psych Corps, which is pretty amazing given that most of his memories were removed to prevent his mind from finding any links to his past trauma. Rake, on the other hand, has turned into a killer and kidnapper. Singleton’s job at the moment is to find him.

That’s just a small glimpse of the plot of this novel. There’s a lot going on, but it takes a while for any discernible story to appear. Means throws readers right into this world where JFK was not assassinated and large portions of Michigan have burned. And this whole story is framed with a series of Editor’s Notes indicating that it was actually written by a veteran named Eugene Allen who lost a sister (who becomes a character in the book) and committed suicide. This frame exists in the same general alternate history, but we’re told that some facts have been rearranged.

I found this book hard to enjoy. It’s one of those books that seems caught up in its own cleverness and not all that interested in telling a good story. But, upon finishing, I came to respect some of this cleverness, even if I never came around to liking the book much. Both my issues with the book and its ingenuity can be summed up in a few lines taken from a dream sequence in which a dead man speaks to his surviving girlfriend, who is learning to cope with her own trauma:

 Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits to another and fuck cause and effect, because there was none, and if there was we didn’t see much of it. Maybe history was moving forward back in the States. Hell, it most certainly was grinding. The Year of Love was turning itself over to the Year of Hate. There was a purgative thing happening. Ideals were falling neatly to the wayside, one at a time, and giving over to violence. Nam was seeping home.

When I’m reading, I want plot and story and for one thing to fit to another and cause and effect. I’ve enjoyed books without these elements, but they’re hard for me to love. Means’s book resists a clear pattern. Elements of the alternate history don’t have a clear purpose, and the framing story adds messy complications. I’m not sure the character relationships are ever fully explained. But perhaps it’s supposed to be a mess. War and its aftermath are a mess. Trying to fit it into a neat story would be false somehow. Perhaps Means’s intention was for the chaos of Nam not just to seep home but to seep into his story. I may not enjoy reading that kind of book, but I can appreciate the effort.Save

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Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 14 Comments

Lord Jim

lord jimIt’s been quite some time since I’ve read anything by Joseph Conrad. Years ago — just after college — I read Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, both of which I liked very much both for their gripping plot and for their beautiful writing. While Lord Jim (1900) was equally beautiful in its structure and its writing, I found it sometimes difficult to grasp. This is not to say that the events or the plot are intricate or confusing — those are clear enough. Rather, the theme (crimes against honor and the possibility or impossibility of coming to terms with one’s past) is enacted through a narrator and a protagonist who are both so shifty and misty about that theme that I found it, at times, practically impenetrable.

Jim, a young English seaman in the far East, is first mate aboard the Patna, which is taking hundreds of pilgrims to Mecca for the hajj. The ship suffers an inexplicable accident in the night and begins to sink, and Jim — along with the captain and the engineer — abandons the ship and leaves the passengers to drown. In fact, however, unknown to the crew, the ship is rescued the next day, and the crew’s cowardice is exposed. Jim’s navigation command certificate is revoked by the court, and he becomes a ship-chandler’s clerk. He blames himself deeply, both for his weakness and for his failure to become a hero.

The news of Jim’s actions on the Patna follows him from one port to another, and he can’t keep a job or a post of any responsibility. Finally, in desperation, his friend Marlow (the narrator of the tale, who befriended him at the trial, despite a certain reluctance to know a man who could do what Jim did) finds a job for him in remote Patusan, a Malay settlement where Jim’s past can stay hidden. There, Jim becomes a sort of benign ruler (“Lord Jim”), deciding all sorts of local questions and becoming — finally — a trusted man. This all comes to an end when a local (white) pirate, “Gentleman” Brown, attacks the settlement and Jim must decide what to do.

The structure of this novel is one of the most interesting and sophisticated things about it. Most of the book is narrated, as I said, by Marlow, to a group of silent interlocutors at a club, and other characters tell their own stories within that narration in nested dialogue (Jim, Stein, Captain Brierly.) The conclusion is a letter from Marlow to another silent reader, with a couple of other pieces of written evidence making their appearance. Here, too, other characters get to speak, notably Jewel (Jim’s love) and even Gentleman Brown. The pieces of the story are told out of chronological order, and we’re never sure who is telling the truth and who has an agenda. The fact that we receive the information second-or third-hand makes the tale oddly distanced, and in many cases Marlow invents what Jim must be thinking or feeling.

Bu how else are we going to know? Jim is a romantic young man with an idea of himself as a hero, but he doesn’t make long speeches about it. He stammers out cliched boarding-school phrases like “By Jove!” and “I say!” and a few simple paragraphs explaining his actions. Most of his speech is made up of incomplete sentences that he allows Marlow to finish: “Do you know what was my first thought when I heard? I was relieved. I was relieved to hear that those shouts — did I tell you I had heard shouts? No? Well, I did. Shouts for help,… blown along with the drizzle. Imagination, I suppose. And yet I can hardly… How stupid….The others did not.” Jim doesn’t talk about his motives and emotions. Marlow has to guess:

I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog — bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country. They fed one’s curiosity without satisfying it; they were no good for purposes of orientation. Upon the whole he was misleading.

Misleading, twisty, secondhand knowledge, through the mist and fog. This is how we learn about what it means to be honorable, to earn trust, to be (as Marlow says, over and over again) “one of us.” So what is the meaning of honor after all? Conrad paints a picture of colonialism in the far East in which this romantic British aristocratic sense of honor – as shifting and secondhand as it has become in this environment — turns a man’s life into a pressure-cooker. In the end, the whispered echoes of it become tragic and absurd, when a fight at the back of beyond between a ship-chandler’s clerk and a ragged pirate are also, mistily, a duel between a Lord and a Gentleman.

This novel is at the same time romantic (with its themes of honor and heroism and love) and as near as dammit to modernism, with its experimentation with form and its views through the fog. It was also, like all the Conrad I’ve read, extremely beautifully written; anyone who could read the pieces on night sailing and not pause, staggered by the loveliness of the prose, is probably dead inside. Lord Jim is dreamlike and strange, and I recommend it for that and other reasons as well.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 9 Comments

Greensleeves

greensleevesOkay, so: it’s been a hard, sad summer for me in a number of respects, and so I decided to read Greensleeves, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, on the long-ago recommendation (2008, when I had just begun to blog!) of Other Jenny. I thought, she loves it — what the heck, maybe it will cheer me up. In fact, it did. In fact, I was able to concentrate on reading (and not just on TV or browsing the internet) for the first time in weeks.

What was so engrossing? This book is about Shannon Lightley, who has just returned from her wretched senior year of high school and has no idea what she wants to do next. College? Employment? Go abroad with one or another of her several sets of parents? Nothing sounds right, and she is working herself up into a total state of panic when a family friend (Uncle Frosty) suggests a time-out: she will take an entire month off thinking about the situation at all, and take on a job for him. She’ll live in an apartment in a small town and keep an eye on the people in a little boarding-house — Uncle Frosty’s a lawyer, see, and he has a strange will with some odd bequests to these people (things like lessons for skydiving and money for classes that have no practical value) that make him think there might have been something fishy going on.

Shannon, though, is so exhausted by being Shannon that she takes this as an opportunity to become someone else altogether. She puts together a sort of disguise — new hairstyle, new clothes, different makeup (this part is kind of hilarious) — alters her accent, and gets a job as a waitress. Then she shimmies forth with a new kind of confidence to meet all the people in the will: the Greek professor who’s never been to Greece; the woman who does rose gardening at midnight; the intense young artist who draws weeds as if he’s a sort of Weed Audubon; the extremely charming Sherry, who reads a lot and notices people and is straightforward about what he wants from Shannon.

For a while, I thought this was going to be the sort of book where a girl who doesn’t know what to do with herself meets a boy (or boys) and finds out that that’s what she needs to do with herself. Not that I object to that in every case, but that wasn’t the book I needed. In fact, this book is utterly satisfying and charming, and also very different from that. It’s more about the boxes we put ourselves in, and how we feel confused and afraid when those boxes open up, but how large the world becomes afterward. It’s funny and adorable — Shannon’s voice is wonderful — but the themes resonate deeply. If you haven’t been convinced to read it by Jenny’s recommendations yet, let me add another. Have you read it? Tell me about what you thought!

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments